Pressure is mounting on the Abbott government to abandon its controversial higher education reforms. The reforms, which will see university funding slashed by 20%, student fees deregulated from 2016 and real interest applied to student loans, are the most regressive changes to the tertiary sector since the introduction of HECS/HELP in 1989.
Announcing the reforms as part of the May budget, Education Minister Christopher Pyne told The Guardian that the reforms would “strengthen the higher education system”. However, the vast majority of people do not share his view. According to a July Age/Nielsen poll, 69% of people oppose the government’s cuts to higher education.
Widespread opposition, coupled with mass protests against the May budget, has forced the ALP, Greens, even the Palmer United Party to declare they will block some, but not all, cuts in the Senate – including those to higher education. When asked by Sarah Ferguson on the ABC’s 7:30 program if the government intended to modify the reforms in August, Pyne was forced to concede that he “wouldn’t be ruling anything in or anything out”.
Despite promising “no cuts to education” prior to the last federal election, the Abbott government hinted at reform with the formation of a two-man policy committee last November. Headed by David Kemp, John Howard’s first Education Minister, and Andrew Norton, Kemp’s advisor, the Kemp-Norton review into higher education recommended the deregulation of student fees and the introduction of real interest on HECS/HELP debt.
According to Bruce Chapman, architect of the HECS/HELP scheme, the deregulation of fees would be “unfair”. His own modelling shows that course fees would, in most cases, treble, with $100,000 degrees to become the new norm. An increased rate on HECS/HELP loans, up from 2.9% to 6%, would discriminate against poorer students, trapping them life-long debt cycles. For example, a low-income graduate on a salary of $33,000 to $40,000 would pay $105,000 in total repayments over a lifetime with a starting debt of $60,000. By contrast, a high-income earner on a salary of $60,000 to $87,000 would only pay $75,000 in repayments.
The Group of Eight (Go8) universities, or the richest and most powerful universities in the country, supports the cuts. In an address to the National Press Club in July, chairman of the Go8 Ian Young called deregulation a “game-changer and a building block to making our universities brilliant”. Young believes that increasing costs and capping places, as recommended by the Business Council of Australia, would “free up” more capable students to attend other universities “a trickle-down or a flow-across effect”.
Through the passage of appropriation bills, the Senate has already signed $20 billion of cuts into law. However, cuts to public health – including proposed changes to Medicare – and education have yet to be voted on. In reality the budget is only a piece of paper which has to be accepted and then implemented to take effect. It can be stopped if the right strategy is adopted.
The campaign against the cuts should be escalated. The National Union of Students (NUS) and the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) should call a 24-hour nation wide strike of both staff and students as the next step. Through a campaign of mass action and non-compliance, students and staff have the potential to stop the government implementing its measures.
A campaign based on an electoral strategy alone will not work as the ALP opposition, like the Liberals, is complicit in the deregulation of higher education. After all, it was the Gillard Labor government that uncapped university places in 2011 and announced $2.3 billion of cuts to the sector in 2013.
The policies of both the major parties are driven by the needs of private profit. In contrast we need to fight for free, high-quality education and adequate welfare for all those who choose to study. Education should be a basic human right and not a commodity that is bought and sold.
By Conor Flynn